Yet again, it’s that time of year and the more inspired of our media personnel have been going around with their video recorders into the marketplace, so to speak, perchance to learn from our more erudite citizens what they expect from this year’s Budget, soon to be debated in parliament. (Our prime ministers alone know why they have chosen to present their Estimates of Expenditure during the Month of Fools on dates unspecified!)
Remarkably, the question is almost never put to representatives of the business community, hoteliers, community leaders and so on. Almost predictably the answers come from suspect William Peter Boulevard fixtures and others who, by their expressed demands, appear to believe were are still in the heyday of “green gold.” But then, they are not alone. It is unlikely our MPs, if the question were put to them, would supply a more conservative, not to say realistic, wish list.
Recently, while being interviewed on TV by David Samuels, I wondered aloud why anyone, let alone a politician as familiar with the lay of the land—by which I mean what was in our dire circumstances possible—would not this time have run away perchance to fight another day.
Did he actually believe he knew how to deliver better days? Was Kenny Anthony lying in his opposition dentures when he pledged “immediately upon taking office to invest $100 million in the private sector for the purposes of job creation?” Or was there a caveat to his promises printed so finely as not to be visible to the naked eye?
The questions continued to plague me hours after I had left Samuels, forcing me to investigate possible answers. I came across the following: “The government which I have the privilege to lead has had to wade through turbid, if not murky, waters since its formation in December last. We have come to bring better days to Saint Lucia, to find that path toward success, sustainability and social stability. We have not only to change and craft policies but crucially to implement the common will of the people. We have come to build a state that is strong, stable and sustainable.”
Hype? Empty talk? The sugar-coating on a bitter pill later to be administered? Even now it sounds so, well, damn confident! All mapped out was his path toward success, sustainability and social stability: “To achieve this we must be methodical, we must manage differently, we must be willing to cast aside non-enrichening traditions, divisive and regressive attitudes and practices. We must imbue ourselves, each one of us in our own way, with zeal, a drive and a love country. Our ambition, our collective will and desire must be to be ‘simply the best’ in all we do.”
Not even Tina Turner had managed to make “simply the best” sound so seductive!
Then there was this: “Unquestionably, government needs to build back confidence and the ability of the state to act responsibly. Government must be able to pay its sovereign debts, protect the rule of law, ensure the revenues collected in the name of the people are spent as best they can be spent and promote investor confidence. The elements of good governance and confidence in a fair and caring state gives [sic] investor confidence. These elements of good governance and confidence in a fair and caring state gives [sic] pride to its people, gives surety to the investor, gives freedom of mind and energy to the youth, gives a level of trust to all actors, residents and non-residents. This is the social contract that we have signed and must deliver. In these arid days, better days invariably require that we find better ways . . . we must re-skill, retool and refocus our human resources to promote growth and create new jobs in existing and new sectors.”
Just in case this were not already too obvious, be informed that the quoted paragraphs were taken from the prime minister’s last Budget address, as is this:
“The last few years have been particularly difficult for the global economy which has experienced the worst crisis in over 70 years. However, there is now a glimmer of hope as signs are emerging that the worst has passed. An incipient but yet uncertain and timid recovery appears to be underway. However fears persist about the economies of the European Community.”
He did not say in whom the “glimmer of hope” existed. But then there was also this:
“Preliminary data indicates that the tourism sector contracted in 2011 . . . The number of stay-over visitors also declined . . . This performance is explained by the sluggish recovery in major source markets, coupled with rising oil prices and higher airfares.”
Then there was the prime minister’s explanation for the decline in the total visitor expenditure by close to eight percent: “Obviously visitors are far more careful and prudent in their expenditure.”
Hotels had been compelled to discount their rates in order to survive, he acknowledged. As for the banana industry, for the usual climactic reasons exports to the United Kingdom had plummeted by 70 percent, resulting in earnings of $13.2, a decline of 68 percent.
Meanwhile public debt rose to $2,273.2 million, representing a debt to GDP ratio of 68.5 percent at the end of 2011. “The increase in total public debt emanated entirely from increased central government borrowing as the stock of debt guaranteed by the central government declined by 9.3 percent,” the prime minister observed.
Nevertheless, he noted that the local economy had “demonstrated a certain level of resilience that we intend to strengthen to mitigate against future shocks, whether man-made or natural.” So great was his faith in his policies that the prime minister predicted a growth rate of 2.5 percent in 2012 that would be mainly driven by the construction sector and “supported by developments in the tourism and other sectors.” [See article by Toni Nicholas in this issue!]
All of that despite that the island’s economy was “on a very slippery slope,” a situation so precarious that the government was not generating enough to meet its recurrent expenditure, “a recipe for disaster.”
Already the total public debt-to-GDP ratio was projected to rise at the end of March 2012 to 68 percent.
“The reality we have to face is that tourism has held its own but its recovery is at best tepid,” the prime minister said. “It will take another year or two before it returns to its buoyancy of previous years. The agriculture sector has potential but has taken a battering in the past few years. The manufacturing sector has survived but share of GDP has been suffering.”
Always but, but, but. Never butter!
I need not undertake a reality check here. The facts scream for themselves. The promise of jobs-jobs-jobs has been delivered, but evidently not in the way the electorate had been led to anticipate. Not a day passes without public complaints that such employment as had been created since last November were at taxpayer expense, further bloating a public sector payroll long ago beyond our means.
Much of the excuses for the recent public sector upheaval were centered on the “baggage brought in by government,” the consultants, the additional advisors at every ministry, the non-stop travel undertaken by ministers and their blank-faced entourages, and so on.
Worse, the public perception was that too many of the jobs were created for the convenience of well-known party activists.
Curiously, this is what the prime minister said when he last addressed the nation on the issue of public service wages: “The situation confronting us is grave. While I have spoken about this repeatedly, there are some who choose to ignore our reality and create the illusion that things are better than we say they are.”
Ah, but who first created the “better days” illusion? Or should I say delusion? Indeed, in his introduction to his most recent Budget address there was the allusion to his most cited campaign promise: “We have come to bring better days to Saint Lucia, to find that path toward success . . .”
So, who then to blame if the folks actually believed better days automatically would follow the re-election of the Mandrake of Caribbean of politics?
Speaking of the public sector demands that the prime minister claimed were based on “the illusion that things are better than we say”: In times nearly as bad as now, the then opposition leader Kenny Anthony had been among the main agitators demanding he government “give the people their money.”
He had gone so far as to identify the stones to be usefully bled: his proffered solution had everything to do with cutting costs at our several overseas embassies!
More recently, however, he was offering the following among his reasons for refusing to hand workers pay increases of more than 4 percent: “To compound our situation is the huge fiscal deficit left behind by the former government. This deficit stands at 10.7 percent of our gross domestic product. It began to get out of control when the Stephenson King government awarded a 14.5 percent increase to our public officers. We were forced to do what no government should do: borrow to meet the cost of salaries and other recurrent expenditure.”
Imagine that! The Kenny Anthony government had been forced to do “what no government should do.” In much the same way it had been forced to lay on the people when their immune system was at its weakest a killer law that while still in opposition “purgatory” he had described as “oppressive, anti-poor and anti-government.”
A killer drug does not turn into an energizer depending on its dispenser. Killer laws, like killer drugs, do nothing but kill. VAT has not proved anywhere in the Caribbean to be a cure for anything, never mind the debt-financed jingles that last year had sought to imbue it with the magic of a panacea.
Now of course, the prime minister says, “the returns from VAT are below expectations and will not cover the increase in expenditure. We have no option but to borrow the money [to pay for the agreed increased public sector wages].”
Over the weekend, some friends and I were acknowledging the rock-and-a-hard place circumstances confronting Caribbean leaders. “They are all largely to blame for state of the region,” I said, while underscoring the fact that almost every problem now threatening these islands had been staring us all in the face for several years, acknowledged by our leaders, even as they jitterbugged to the sound of Nero’s fiddle. “Forked-tongued devils, the lot of them; vultures addicted to carrion.”
Even Dwight Venner, albeit very late in the day, has been saying the problem was always poor leadership, poor management!
One particular member of our small group, a contracted higher-echelon public servant, agreed with the essence of my remark, if not with my admittedly over-the-top references to our political leaders. “I concur with much of what you’ve said,” he professed, “but why do you lay so much blame on the politicians?”
“On whom should I lay the responsibility?” I asked. “The singers for their suppers?”
“Look,” he said, “I may work for the guys but that doesn’t mean I endorse incompetence. Neither do I have much time for serial prevaricators.”
And I said: “The trouble is, only you and a handful of others who prepare the politicians’ speeches know the truth. Would it not have been better to have stayed out of the 2009 public-wages war? Would it not have been better to tell the people how bad things really were even back in 2009, that better days would demand personal and other sacrifices? Would it have hurt the re-election campaign to come clean in 2011?”
I barely stopped for air. “And having won the election on facts absolutely askew from the reality,” I went on, “couldn’t the prime minister have given a speech different from what he delivered on Budget Day? All that stuff about tourism’s imminent return to normalcy, the economic world crisis soon coming to an end, what an insult to the people’s intelligence?”
“Oh,” said my friend the public servant, “but the prime minister wasn’t lying about tourism’s recovery. Just check the figures. In the States, too, things are getting better.”
I said: “Well, the SLHTA tells a totally different story of visitors coming in at greatly discounted rates, about planes arriving full at Hewanorra but only because several flights to Saint Lucia have been cut, and so on. Where did he get the idea that the world economy was recovering? Reality checks regarding America’s employment figures are actually quite depressing…”
My friend held up his hand. “I agree with most of that. But governments do not elect themselves. Nothing will change until the people change, until they wise up to the fact that politicians will always be politicians and should not be automatically trusted. They tell people what the people want to hear. Personally, I would like to see a higher caliber of citizen going up for elections. I’d like to see some people with records to their names, people who have achieved from their vision and creativity. Former public servants and others just returned from studying but with no work record to speak of need not apply. They cannot deliver what this country needs right now. But you know what, we don’t have them!”
“I’ll tell what we have too much of,” I said. “Too many holders of first degrees in political science, sociology, psychology and so on. The ancient textbooks they crammed and then regurgitated never prepared them to advise real prime ministers on previously unimagined economic matters, especially in no-economy debt zones like ours.”
He nodded slowly but affirmatively. “Where you gonna get them?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’m fed up with having my intelligence insulted every time a politician reads badly from his poorly written script. And talking about their degrees, few of them have any relevance at all to what’s expected of their holders.”
The public servant said: “You shouldn’t expect too much, Rick. Our politicians are a reflection of the people. It’s a Catch-22 situation. But you have to admit the prime minister offers hope and the people need hope if they are to keep on keeping on.”
“Ah, well, then” I said, “I feel so much better now knowing all it takes to bring in better days is hope—of which we have VAT loads!”